Games 6/8/10: Blur, Backbreaker, Planet Minigolf

Blur
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bizarre Creations/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild language)

Bizarre Creations has attempted to make it perfectly clear that while “Blur” uses vehicle and track designs typically reserved for the likes of “Burnout” and “Need for Speed,” the game it’s really targeting is “Mario Kart.”

Looks and a few other particulars aside, the comparison isn’t a stretch — for reasons good and bad.

While “Blur” doesn’t completely nullify the value of able and dangerous driving — the cars handle almost identically to those in Bizarre’s more serious “Project Gotham” racing games — the real key to victory comes from sabotaging the opposition with power-ups scattered around the track. The use of real-world graphics trickles down slightly to these power-ups, but while they don’t look as fantastical as “Kart’s” mushrooms and turtle shells, their general behavior certainly calls that game to mind. “Blur,” to its credit, introduces some nice improvements to the system by mixing in defensive items, including a shield, and by letting players go after the items they specifically want instead of picking up unmarked boxes and hoping what they want is inside.

The heavy premium on power-ups in what otherwise feels like another “Project Gotham” game certainly makes for a novel change of pace, but the degree to which “Blur” deemphasizes the importance of driving well is kind of disappointing. Ramming and sideswiping cars is practically worthless, and while there are occasional rewards for agile driving, most of the advancement through the game comes from pelting other drivers with items and zipping past them while they recover. Some of “Blur’s” constricting track designs practically mandate dull, safe driving, especially early on when the only vehicles available to drive are Class D cars that handle like tugboats.

Frustration with these and other factors, including some unfortunate difficulty imbalances (the game’s too easy on the easy setting, but gets ruthlessly, cheaply difficult on normal difficulty and beyond) and a long wait before the cars that are really fun to drive become available, makes “Blur’s” single-player component something not everyone will love. Bizarre has designed a inventive career mode that functions like a role-playing game and allows players some measure of forward progress toward unlocking better cars even when they finish dead last in an event. But while that setup gives the mode some serious longevity, it also feels designed to make players grind away by losing the same events repeatedly until they have the experience and cars necessary to win it. That this can lead to frustrating stagnation is both obvious and an understatement.

Fortunately, “Blur” has a similar system in place for online multiplayer (20 players), and it carries all the benefits of the single-player mode without the aggravations the A.I. brings to that table. The game matches players against others in their experience class, and because the playing field is completely level and factors beyond player control have no say on the outcome of the race, it’s a significantly better realization of what Bizarre envisioned when it first conceived this idea. Kart racing has always been a genre that shines brightest in multiplayer, and “Blur” gets major points for recognizing that and giving that crowd just as much to strive for as those driving solo.

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Backbreaker
For: Playstation 3 and xbox 360
From: NaturalMotion Games/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The problem with “Backbreaker” — and there probably couldn’t be a worse problem for a football game to have than this — is that its diversionary modes are better than its presentation of a complete game of football.

The promise of “Backbreaker” — which champions a game of football based around a dramatically more intense physics engine than what “Madden” uses — is everywhere in the optional but recommended tutorial portion. The mode introduces the controls and physics via 25 lessons, covering everything from open-field tackling to the art of the interception, and it doubles as a validation of the concepts NaturalMotion has introduced to make this a step in a new direction for football games.

“Backbreaker” treats the two control sticks as extensions of a player’s body — the left stick controls the feet per usual, the right stick good for juking, hitting, passing, swimming around blocks and so on — and it presents the action from closely behind whichever player you’re controlling instead of from fixed angles a la “Madden.” You can switch between players at will, but “Backbreaker” encourages picking a player during the play-calling screen and sticking to him throughout the play. The camera unwieldiness that happens when switching mid-play certainly validates that approach.

The zoomed-in camera angles work well during the tutorials, which operate within controlled parameters. They also work in the terrific Tackle Alley mini-game, which finds players running through a gauntlet of would-be tacklers and racking up arcadey scores by dodging defenders and reaching the end zone.

But “Backbreaker” tumbles hard when placed in real, 11-on-11 game situations. The camera zooms too far in for players to have any field presence in unscripted situations, and while we get a nice look at the cool tackling physics, it’s too difficult to find open lanes while running, check multiple receivers while passing, or do just about anything near the line on either side of the ball. It’s sometimes preferable to just break the system: Lining a defensive end on the opposite side of the play makes it far easier to sack, for instance, while running the ball east and then north makes for much larger gains than following the block.

Which leads to the other problem: “Backbreaker’s” A.I. is both too easy to exploit and excessively prone to undermining the fun. Quarterbacks randomly throw directly to defensive backs nowhere near the route, and your teammates go on spurts of committing the same penalty multiple times. Turnovers are way too commonplace, and the afflictions affect human and A.I. teams alike on all difficulty settings.

“Backbreaker’s” dead-simple playbook isn’t bad news for players overwhelmed by the sea of formations and plays in “Madden,” and the absence of the NFL license doesn’t necessarily sting thanks to a customization tool that lets players extensively edit the name, look and roster of 32 teams. (Players can’t share created teams online, but even if they could, the lawyers that be likely wouldn’t allow the sharing of user-created NFL teams anyway.)

But the features and arguably refreshing simplicity are for naught until “Backbreaker” figures out how to get the main course right. First effort or not, too much goes wrong here to recommend this, novelty factor or not, as a serious alternative to “Madden’s” brand of football.

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Planet Minigolf
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

The good thing about “Planet Minigolf” is that its biggest problem is potentially treatable with a patch. The bad thing, unfortunately, is that if that never happens, that problem — control — rates pretty high on the list of issues not to have. On every other front, “Minigolf” is an extraordinary package for $10. The 16 nine-hole courses, which disperse over four different environmental theme
s, look great and offer a healthy mix of surprises and homages to classic minigolf traps, and a surprisingly rich course editor allows players to create their own courses and share them online. There’s a single-player campaign as well as online/local multiplayer (up to six players), and players can customize their character’s look for both components. “Minigolf” even supports three-on-three team play, and the truly patriotic can represent their country and contribute their scores to an inspired multinational leaderboard. So it’s too bad about those controls: The default analog stick scheme is way too touchy to feel natural, and the button-centric alternate controls (in addition to being entirely too easy to miss completely in the menus) suffer the same problem to a smaller degree. Practice makes that touchiness easier to anticipate, and the present settings are nowhere near unreasonable enough to completely derail the experience. But “Minigolf” will need some developer fine-tuning before it feels as effortlessly intuitive as the PS3’s best traditional golf games presently do.


Games 6/1/10: ModNation Racers, Red Dead Redemption, Looksley's Line Up

ModNation Racers
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: PSP
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

“ModNation Racers” successfully reinvigorates the cobwebbed kart racing genre by allowing players to design and share fully customized drivers, karts and tracks with enormous ease and boundless creative license, and the interfaces through which it does this are brilliantly conceived.

How remarkable, then, that even without any of those tools, this still would signify a badly-needed leap forward.

Credit for that goes to “MNR’s” actual racing action, which, even against A.I. opponents, is often as exhilarating as its creation and community tools. The sense of speed and danger is leagues beyond anything seen in recent “Mario Kart” games, and there’s more for players to do than hold down the gas, look for shortcuts, dispatch power-ups and hope no one cheats them out of a lead when they finally take one.

Drifting, catching air and drafting all build turbo, which players can apply to speed boosts. But the turbo also works as currency for a fantastic sideswipe maneuver, which lets players drive offensively without waiting for a power-up, as well as a forcefield that allows frontrunners to fend off power-up attacks instead of simply drive scared like sitting ducks. Timing a perfect forcefield defense isn’t easy at all, but the ability to even do so at least puts players’ fates in their own hands for a change. (Take notes, Nintendo.)

All of these ideas gel thanks to a control scheme that just feels great. Driving dangerously and racking up huge drifts is fun without being punishing if you mess up, and perfecting the timing and distance needed for a perfect attack on another driver is satisfying not only because of how fluid the controls are, but also because of how great everything looks when a strike hits its target.

For those who pick up “Racers” with no desire to play with others, the selection of on-disc tracks is nicely varied and the default difficulty a strong balance of accessible and tough. The career mode tells an actual story, and the cutscenes between races are funny and surprisingly polished.

But to play “MNR” this way is to completely miss the point of its community and creation tools, which, outside of some unfortunately long load times, mesh together under one staggeringly slick umbrella.

“MNR’s” driver and kart creation interfaces should feel familiar to anyone who has created a customized character or vehicle in another game. Both are easy to use, and while playing through the game unlocks more useable parts, the extreme flexibility of the sizing, placement and coloring tools makes the default selection feel nearly limitless as is.

The track editor, somewhat shockingly, is just as simple to use. Terrain tools allow players to model the environment like clay, and laying track is as simple as driving a track-laying-vehicle around an blank canvas. Ambitious players can overlap track and add numerous props to the area however they please, but “MNR” also provides auto-complete and auto-populate shortcuts for those who want to do something quick and dirty.

All of these creations come together in a supremely slick virtual online world that allows players, driving around in their karts as if in an MMO, to mingle with other players, download other players’ creations, and challenge anyone in the area to races on the fly. Even those who had no intention ever to race online might change their mind once they see how fantastically accessible doing so is here.

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Red Dead Redemption
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Rockstar San Diego
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

The problem with most video game westerns is that you don’t need to appreciate the Old West to appreciate them. They’re typically designed in the mold of other games, subbing in Old West iconography but otherwise bearing little distinction from so many other shooters covering completely different periods.

“Red Dead Redemption” doesn’t have this problem, because while many of its underpinnings are unmistakably lifted from Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto” games, the degree to which Rockstar caters those parts to the setting — instead of the usual other way around — gives it more Wild West conviction than the sum of almost every virtual western that preceded it.

The level of conviction isn’t fully apparent until the storyline is a few hours old, but “Redemption” hints at it almost as soon as the tutorial missions end and players are free to explore the world on their terms.

At first, it’s a little disconcerting. New Austin’s vast wilderness sits in striking contrast to Liberty City’s bustling streets, but it’s no smaller a landscape, and there appears to be less to do between towns. Despite some clever control touches, riding horses naturally is slower and more laborious than driving cars, and the overly simple early missions provide little solace when players retreat back to the storyline for excitement.

But “Redemption” gradually brings its world alive. Characters met early on come together for significantly more exciting (and challenging) missions, and as players’ renown increases, so does the variety of activities in town (poker, duels, horseshoes, bounties and more) and on the frontier (herding challenges, persistent missions for strangers, even some light agriculture appreciation).

Perhaps most impressive is “Redemption’s” attention to detail with regard to wildlife. The horses display personalities and credible mannerisms. Coyotes and wolves attack at night, and bears are to be feared just as skunks, deer and birds scurry at any sign of trouble. (Sidebar: “Redemption’s” audiovisual presentation of weather patterns and day/night cycles is magnificent.) The game offers challenges to players who wish to hunt for profit, but they’re entirely optional if you’d rather just observe and save the bullets for the bandits.

Per Rockstar tradition, “Redemption” allows players to be as good or evil as they please, and the systems in place for outrunning the law make it tempting to be the bad guy.

But “Redemption’s” central storyline — which puts players in the shoes of a reformed scoundrel-turned-devoted husband whose only desire is to protect his family — makes it equally difficult not to want to fly right. All the things that made “Grand Theft Auto 4’s” story so good — strong characters, terrific voice acting, meticulous dialogue and a true sense of setting — are present here as well, and “Redemption’s” leading protagonist is easily the most likable Rockstar creation yet.

Players with a morality complex might prefer to just flash their evil side online. “Redemption” includes a couple traditional competitive multiplayer modes, but its best asset is Free Roam mode, which drops up to 16 players inside a world full of A.I. characters and allows anything to go. Players can level up and unlock new gear by teaming up and completing co-op challenges scattered around the map, but they just as easily can turn on each other or wreak random havoc against the A.I. It’s your Old West playground, and Rockstar cares not what you do in it.

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Looksley’s Line Up
For: Nintendo DSi via Nintendo DSiWare Shop
From: Good-Feel Co./Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Shortly
after Nintendo announced the Nintendo 3DS earlier this year, Youtube users mistook a video of “Looksley’s Line Up” as a sample of what games would look like on the futuristic forthcoming handheld. They were wrong, of course, but if that isn’t a testament to how cool “LLU” is when it’s working, nothing is. The object of “LLU” is pretty simple: Find hidden letters and objects in the environment. But rather than be just another mindless object finder, “LLU” presents its levels as virtual, layered 3D dioramas. The game tracks the player’s head movements with the DSi’s front-facing camera, and players, holding the device like a book, must move their head or the device around to line up scenery different ways to make those objects and letters appear. As might be expected when using a very low-definition camera, “LLU” can be a finicky game, and while setting up the head tracking is painless, there will be times when you’ll have to recalibrate due to changes in lighting or just because the camera won’t cooperate. But that’s the price of innovation, and it’s a price well-paid when “LLU” works. Altering the environmental perspective with just a twitch of the head is extremely cool, and the normally mundane endeavor of finding objects feels fresh and rewarding with the extra element of deciphering optical illusions thrown into the mix.


Games 5/25/10: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Split/Second, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, 10 Pin Shuffle

Super Mario Galaxy 2
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Nintendo has made zero bones about “Super Mario Galaxy 2” being more of the same stuff that made “Super Mario Galaxy” what it was, and because “Galaxy” was one of 2007’s best games, no one really seemed bothered by the idea of “SMG2” being, at worst, the same fundamental game with new levels.

And at worst, that’s exactly what this is. But that’s also what the first “Galaxy” was — a prototypical 3D Mario game that had the same old story and was more notable for the unbelievable variety of new level designs it unleashed than any revolutionary change to the way players controlled Mario.

This time, just like last time, Nintendo relegates motion controls to special self-contained challenges that serve as diversions more than the main course, which plays out using the same traditional control scheme Nintendo has been using since Mario first entered the third dimension in 1996. A second player can once again use a Wii remote to help (or hinder) Mario in a few minor ways, but this doesn’t change the core game so much as give it a light social element. Like its predecessor, and unlike last year’s “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” “SMG2” isn’t designed with multiplayer in mind beyond sharing turns and passing the controller around.

With none of “Galaxy’s” basic ingredients needing any repair, Nintendo did as it should and focused primarily on unleashing two-plus years’ worth of whatever crazy new level ideas it could conjure.

The result, without getting too specific and spoiling anything, is nothing short of exquisite. “SMG2” reuses bits and pieces of certain “Galaxy” levels, but it largely reinvents the wheel, constructing worlds that play liberally with the laws of gravity, collapse upon themselves, make Mario feet 2 feet tall, dream up impossibly crazy boss fights and even pay tribute to Mario’s past adventures. New characters join in, old favorites return, and the whole thing is an unapologetically colorful ball of joyful, brilliant design that perfectly toes the line between welcoming players of all stripes and challenging the best of them to bring their A-game. Picking every level clean will take a good 15 skillful hours to do, and there isn’t a moment in those hours where Nintendo’s level designers just coasted by.

“SMG2” expands Mario’s suit repertoire by combining his classic (Fire Mario) and “Galaxy” (Bee Mario, Spring Mario, Boo Mario, Rainbow Mario) power-ups with a couple new entrants. Rock Mario can wreak havoc as a living boulder, while players who could use a hand will appreciate Cloud Mario’s ability to create his own platforms.

But perhaps the most welcome addition — along with being able to occasionally play as Luigi without beating the whole game — is the return of Yoshi, whose unique abilities come into play much more effectively than they did in his last appearance eight years ago. “SMG2” generally reserves Yoshi’s appearances for specific levels, but the upshot is that those levels better cater to Yoshi’s ability to eat this and grab onto that than would be the case if Mario could enlist him at any time. Yoshi gains a few new powers of his own, including the ability to illuminate like a light bulb and turn into a makeshift blimp, but the same abilities he’s had for 20 years remain the most fun to use here.

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Split/Second
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Black Rock Studio/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

It’s pretty clear how “Split/Second” wants to set itself apart as more than just another arcade racing game. The game’s premise exists inside a reality television show, which exists inside a fake city that players can thoroughly blow to pieces while simultaneously working their way around otherwise traditional racetracks.

Less obvious, but perhaps more important, is how well “Split/Second” does the little things — difficulty balancing, single-player rewards, a pattern of destruction that relies on timing and physics instead of simple scripted explosions — to make the big thing work so splendidly.

“Split/Second’s” core racing component should ring mostly familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how arcade racers work. The game is generous with the crash physics, allowing and encouraging dangerous driving over pristine technique, and players who draft, drift, catch air and otherwise live dangerously are rewarded with further abilities toward gaining an edge.

In this case, though, those abilities translate into limited-use but freely deployable triggers that level portions of the environment and brutalize all cars that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those triggers translate into everything from helicopters dropping bombs to collapsing bridges to a yacht taking out a piece of highway, and “Split/Second’s” outstanding graphics engine brings every calamity to eye-popping life.

But it’s the physics more than the graphics that keep those explosions fresh beyond the novelty period. “Split/Second’s” impressively spartan heads-up display offers clues as to when it would be best to trigger a disaster, but simply hitting the button doesn’t promise anything. A.I. drivers can sidestep a poorly-timed trigger, and players very easily can trigger an attack on their own car if they don’t think it through. Nothing about the mechanic is scripted, and A.I. drivers are as prone to making the same mistakes.

For the same reasons, dodging other drivers’ attacks is arguably even more exciting than setting them off. The arsenal of trigger possibilities shrinks considerably for players who lead the race, but driving with seven targets on your back changes the game enough to more than compensate. “Split/Second’s” superb driving controls make skirting disaster by inches a tangible thrill, and the game’s diversionary events — which find players dodging bombing helicopters and outrunning semis bent on sabotage — play to this thrill as perfectly as the more traditional races do.

A point could certainly be made that “Split/Second’s” single-player career mode is hampered by some ruthless A.I. that can send players from first place to last in the blink of a single mistake. But the game rarely trips players into making unfair mistakes, and the career mode counteracts by rewarding players who finish in fifth as well as first with some kind of progress compensation. Players can repeat races at any time (and with better vehicles acquired by accumulating progress elsewhere), and while the system occasionally feels cheap, there’s something refreshing about an arcade racer that challenges you to conquer it from the very first race.

Naturally, any grievances with the A.I. fall away in “Split/Second’s” multiplayer mode (two players splitscreen, eight online), and all that’s great about the on-track action in single-player play applies here as well. Just don’t expect much beyond that: It works, and it supports most of the single-player modes in multiplayer form, but that’s about as fancy as it gets.

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Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Five “Prince of Persia” games in seven years after three in the preceding 14 has taken the franchise from nowhereville to sequel city in a hurry, and “The Forgotten Sands” does itself no favor by abandoning the dramatic visual and narrative makeover that made the 2008 reboot such a pleasantly fresh surprise.

“Sands” instead is a direct sequel to 2003’s “The Sands of Time,” which provides the basis of the “Persia” film currently in theaters (and, consequently, should answer whatever questions you had about Ubisoft ditching that reboot and rushing “Sands” out 17 months later).

Early on, “Sands” feels less like a sequel to “Time” than a capable but uninspired imitation of it. It plays like a typical “Perisa” game, mixing some ambitious environmental platforming with sword combat that’s more fun than special. Per series tradition, the massive traversable environments — ledges, trapeze swings, poles, cliff sides — feel like gigantic environmental riddles more than simple action game playgrounds, and the game uses an assisted character movement scheme that doesn’t hold players’ hands but also doesn’t require angle-perfect precision jumping. As with “Time,” and per story dictation, players eventually receive a limited-use ability to rewind time and correct mistimed jumps without reverting back to a checkpoint.

That rewind trick becomes indispensable once “Sands” comes into its own and gives the Prince powers that dwarf anything “Time” did. Players gradually receive the ability to alter the environment — freeze and unfreeze water, make entire structures appear and disappear — while simultaneously jumping through and climbing around it in traditional and (thanks to yet more abilities) exhilarating new ways. “Sands'” early levels aren’t exactly dull, but the designs in the second two-thirds of the game, which mix and match abilities with abandon and place a premium on meticulous timing and some serious thumb gymnastics, put them to shame.

“Sands'” combat, which pits the Prince against several dozen grunts and the occasional heavy at once, is considerably less impressive, but also an improvement on the 2008 game’s drab one-on-one combat. The Prince has a modest array of upgradable sword attacks and spells, but the combat typically amounts to little more than mashing buttons to kill a few dozen enemies while dodging the glacial attacks of the handful who get a chance to fight back. It’s nothing other action games haven’t done considerably better, but it is good for a mindless break between the more cerebral platforming parts, and it never carries on long enough to become a detriment to the fun.

What can be a detriment is “Sands'” occasional ability to just act up and not play nice. During the course of this review, for instance, a segment near the end of the game proved impossible to pass until the game was rebooted, after which point everything clicked and the same attempted maneuvers worked perfectly. The game’s checkpoint system is generous enough to make this an inconvenience more than a deal-breaker, and there’s no telling how likely it is you’ll even encounter this problem. But if you suddenly find certain techniques failing you no matter what you do, your best recourse may be the reset button.

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10 Pin Shuffle
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (Universal App)
From: Digital Smoke
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $4 (free demo version available)

The complexity of mobile games has skyrocketed since the iPhone development floodgates opened a couple years ago, but sometimes the best games remain the simple ones that just use the touchscreen perfectly right. “10 Pin Shuffle” aims to replicate the shufflepuck bowling game found in arcades and bars everywhere, and while the default control setting is excessively sensitive, the Easy Controls setting perfectly nails the sensation of sliding the puck at those pins. That alone makes this one of those games that even technophobic non-gamers don’t need instructions to play. “Shuffle’s” feature set nicely complements its intuitiveness: The 3D graphics look great, the little touches in the sound and presentation departments are a treat, and the game’s stat-tracking is impressive in its details. Best of all, there’s a bounty of modes, including traditional bowling, a really clever poker mode that combines bowling with video poker, and a version of straight-up, pins-free shufflepuck with customizable win conditions. In-progress games are autosaved if interrupted, and almost all modes support solo play, single-player with an A.I. opponent and pass-the-device or Bluetooth multiplayer. (The poker mode can’t support pass-the-device multiplayer due to its design, but it does support Bluetooth play.)


Games 5/18/10: Alan Wake, Lost Planet 2, Smiles

Alan Wake
For: Xbox 360
From: Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)

Until now, “Alan Wake” was best known in gaming circles as a title in development since before the Xbox 360’s mere existence was public knowledge.

The effects of the lengthy development are apparent in the final product, which occasionally looks older than it is and forces players to contend with some unwieldy (and slightly incomplete) third-person shooter controls. But all those years also have been very kind to the titular character and his story, which are so carefully and cleverly constructed as to render any shortcomings almost completely moot.

It’s no great surprise that “Wake’s” storyline — which finds Alan, a famous mystery writer, racing through a secluded resort town to discover why the pages of his unfinished manuscript have come true and made his wife disappear — is a cut above. Remedy Entertainment produced some of the best storytelling of the early 2000s with its “Max Payne” games, and while the particulars have changed, the ingredients — narration from the playable character, generally stellar voice acting, a word-perfect script that touches darkly comedic, self-depreciating and noirish nerves in the right ways at the right times — have all returned.

Where Remedy outdoes itself is with its thorough understanding of the art of the cliffhanger.

“Wake” presents its story as a six-episode miniseries, complete with “Previously on…” recaps at the top of each episode. The approach greatly enhances the game’s personality, but it also provides a means to drop a terrific reveal at the bottom of each episode that makes it awfully hard not to immediately dive right into the next one. (Sidebar to alleviate potential confusion: “Wake’s” generous checkpoint system does not require players to play entire episodes in single sittings.)

What initially begins as a collection of winks at nods toward classic horror tropes gradually becomes its own creation, and by the time the third episode kicks into gear, “Wake” has enough great characters and distinctive twists to keep its ultimate destination a genuine mystery. (Whether the culmination of that mystery satisfies or aggravates will, of course, come down to individual taste.)

All that wonderful storytelling is enough to offset issues with “Wake’s” gameplay, which is fun but would be unremarkable and kind of repetitive without the story and setting taking it down new avenues.

Though “Wake” utilizes an over-the-shoulder perspective, Alan’s aim — be it with his flashlight or his firearm — isn’t exactly refined. That in itself is an arguable service to the game’s immersion, given that he’s an author and not a soldier. But it also allows the game’s possessed but combat-savvy enemies to flank rather easily, and the shaky aiming translates into some poor field awareness that can prove fatal. A slick dodge mechanic comes in handy when things get hairy, but “Wake” is begging for a melee button that would have made fighting out of a jam more flexible and fun.

Again, though, when all else fails, the checkpoint system is pretty benevolent. “Wake’s” higher difficulty settings pose a nice challenge to those hungry for one, but Remedy ultimately wants to show the ending to anyone who wants to see it. Balancing those two priorties and pleasing everybody is an unenviable task, but Remedy does a very enviable job of pulling it off.

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Lost Planet 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

“Lost Planet 2” is the most aggravating kind of game there is, because when it isn’t busy being unreasonably toxic, it’s kind of awesome.

At its core, “LP2” is, like its predecessor, just a ton of dumb third-person shooter fun. The weaponry packs an exaggerated punch (both in recoil felt and damage dealt), the operable mechs allow for joyously destructive rampages, and the explosions and screen-sized bug enemies are as impressive here as they are anywhere. “LP2” primarily squares players off against human opposition this time around, but it still takes frequent occasion to bust out some show-stopping encounters against absolutely gigantic bugs.

The net visual and tactile effect of all this action remains incredible and distinctive fours years after we first experienced it, and while the run-and-gun controls feel slightly archaic in this era of cover-based shooters, they’re a perfect complement under these conditions.

Sounds great, right? It should be, and it would be if “LP2’s” overlying particulars didn’t have more left feet than an groggy millipede. But they do, and most of the fault lies with an startlingly unfriendly implementation of co-op play into what used to be a single-player-friendly game.

Like its predecessor, “LP2” tells a story — and, at some 15 hours long, a lengthy one at that. But instead of present it like any other single-player game with co-op functionality, Capcom dresses each chapter in a multiplayer lobby interface. Players load out as a foursome, and those who wish to play alone are gifted three A.I.-controlled players with immersion-shattering fake screennames floating above their heads. The interface is similarly kludgy, offering no way for players to drop into games already in progress and never bothering to explain the confusing setup to players who played the first game alone and expected a similar road through the sequel.

But the real trouble awaits in the gameplay, which operates by multiplayer rules even for those who play alone. That means no checkpoints or save spots during the span of levels that often take an hour to finish. “LP2’s” complicated health math means players can respawn upon dying a limited number of times, but should that math run out, any progress in the level is lost. Players can’t even pause the game — something other co-op games allow even with friends aboard.

These inconveniences turn into deal-breakers once it becomes clear “LP2” has no issue with dishing out some staggeringly cheap action even on its easiest difficulty. One-hit kills, psychic enemy A.I. and unavoidable boss attacks abound, and because Capcom put zero effort into making solo players’ A.I. teammates anything beyond borderline catatonic, what feels cheap with friends assisting is a nightmare alone. Challenge is a wonderful thing, but “LP2” goes about creating it in entirely unfriendly and joyless ways.

The news is better for the subset of players who enjoyed “LP1” for its competitive online multiplayer (16 players). “LP2” borrows some of the single-player game’s health math but otherwise resists the temptation to fix time-tested modes that aren’t broken, and the dreadful A.I. is nowhere to be found. For players who want to experience all the game does right without dealing with all it does wrong, this is the way to do it.

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Smiles
For: iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad (separate version for iPad)
From: Sykhronics Entertainment
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: $2 (sale pricing; subject to change soon)

Given the number of perfectly good “Bejeweled” clones lurking in the iTunes Store, it’s impressive to find one, like “Smiles,” that goes its own way by changing just one rule. As with its ilk, the object of “Smiles” is to match rows of three or more identical blocks. The difference is that instead of switching two blocks around within the grid,
players must swap in a block from outside the grid to match three and then use the block they just swapped out as the next block to swap in. There’s a loss of strategy in always having to use a particular block, but “Smiles” counters that by encouraging players to think quickly and keep the board constantly in motion while the score multiplier rockets upward. The fast pace of the main game mode is a surprisingly fun departure from “Bejeweled” proper, and a nice level of polish — both in the presentation and the responsiveness of the controls — makes it work. For a change of pace, “Smiles” includes additional variants, including an outstanding Zen mode that changes the game in the complete opposite way by once again hitting just one switch. The lack of online leaderboards is disappointing, particularly in light of how slick the score- and stat-tracking systems are, but an absolutely gargantuan mountain of unlockable achievements gives dedicated players plenty to shoot for regardless.